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Gorman: Five thoughts on the Steelers and Le'Veon Bell's franchise tag

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 8:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell returns to practice Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

1. Now that the Steelers and Le'Veon Bell have failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal by Monday's exclusive franchise-tag deadline, we will soon find out whether there was any truth to his tweet threatening a holdout.

Bell tweeted on April 1 that he would “LITERALLY sit out the WHOLE YEAR before I decide to play on tag!” A day later, he followed with an “APRIL FOOLS” tweet with laughing emojis.

As jokes go, it was a lousy one.

After skipping both mandatory minicamp and voluntary organized team activities, you have to wonder when Bell will sign the $12.12 million franchise-tag tender. He's under no obligation to report to the Steelers until he does, and an absence at training camp would be a preseason distraction for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

2. When Antonio Brown signed his five-year, $72.71-million contract extension in February, I wrote that Brown's behavior should serve as a role model for Bell .

As much as Brown has been labeled a distraction for his touchdown twerk and live-stream video feed from the locker room, the All-Pro receiver is renowned for his work ethic off the field and productivity on it. Instead of holding out, he took the Rooneys at their word that his patience would be rewarded.

3. Bell is only 25, but because of injuries and suspension he hasn't started and finished a season in the first four years of his career.

While Bell hasn't proven to be durable, he has been dependable when healthy and was voted team MVP last year after rushing for 1,268 yards and adding 616 receiving yards in only 12 games.

Bell will be the NFL's highest-paid running back if/when he signs the franchise-tag tender, and any long-term deal would be expected to eclipse the five-year, $40.5-million contract of Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, of which $18.25 million is guaranteed.

Perhaps the problem isn't the term but the guaranteed money. The Steelers typically guarantee only the signing bonus, for which Brown received $19 million and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger $31 million in 2015. But some have speculated that because the team could tag Bell again next year for $14.5 million, that a $26 million guarantee would be a starting point in negotiations.

Bell's injury history — a pedal foot tear, concussion, ACL pull, MCL tear and groin surgery — makes giving him a lot of guaranteed money a gamble for the Steelers. That injury history is why it would have benefited Bell to sign a long-term deal. The security of a second contract would have protected him in case of another.

4. What separates Bell from other NFL backs is his ability to be just as effective in the pass game as the run game. Not only does he catch the ball out of the backfield but creates major mismatches when split wide.

Any absence by Bell, however, gives his backup more playing time. Where that wasn't a concern with DeAngelo Williams (now 34) last season, it's only going to create a chance for rookie James Conner to play. By drafting wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and Conner in the second and third rounds, respectively, the Steelers have insurance in both their backfield and receiving corps.

But there's not another back in the NFL like Bell.

5. Not signing Bell to a long-term deal can be viewed as a lost opportunity or a great one.

The Steelers now can focus their efforts on signing left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an exclusive rights free agent, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.

And Bell has proven that a long layoff won't hurt his production. He played in only one preseason game last year, rushing for 21 yards on three carries and catching five passes for 37 yards. He missed the first three regular-season games because of a drug-related suspension, yet returned to rush for 144 yards on 18 carries with five catches for 34 yards in Week 4 against Kansas City.

Whenever Bell reports, he should have no shortage of motivation as he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

And the Steelers and Bell must wait until next year to play another game of tag.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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